By Alfred King, Journalism Guild Writer
Rhode Island considers anyone sentenced to life in prison to be “civilly dead,” meaning they have no civil rights.
The law dates back some 100 years and stems from ancient English common law. New York has a similar law but does not enforce it, Mother Jones reported July 30.
Prisoners declared civilly dead cannot sue or raise complaints about abuse or mistreatment suffered while in prison in state court.
Property rights are forfeited as well as rights over their own children. In the eyes of the law they are “ deemed to be dead in all respects, as if (their) natural death had taken place at the time of conviction,” noted the article
The article cites the case of Dana Gallop, a Boston gang member accused of murder awaiting trial in a Rhode Island prison when he was attacked by another inmate with a razor in 2010.
The attack left him with scars across his face, and he attempted to sue, alleging that the correctional staff knew of the planned attack and did nothing to stop it.
The state Supreme Court ruled against him in 2018, saying he was legally dead and could not sue anyone.
Currently there are between 220-240 prisoners in Rhode Island serving life sentences.
In 2007 state legislators passed a bill in the attempt to change the “civil death” legal status. Then Gov. Donald Carcieri vetoed it, writing, “Persons who are sentenced to the remainder of their natural lives in prison are there because they have been found by a jury of their peers to have committed the most serious possible crimes against society, in many cases offenses that have stripped another human being of his or her life.”
Other repeal bills have been introduced since 2014, including this year; none have passed.
Attorney Sonja Deyoe represented Cody-Allen Zab in lawsuits joined by the ACLU of Rhode Island. Zab, a lifer, was burned in prison when he rubbed up against exposed steam pipes near the phones. Davis was given an insulin injection that was contaminated with blood of other inmates.
Both inmates were not allowed to sue in state court.
“The state could choose not to feed these individuals, deny them medical care, torture them, or do anything short of execute them” and they would “have absolutely no redress available to them from the state court.” Deyoe wrote in a lawsuit in June on behalf of Zab.
Lawyers for the state Department of Corrections in response to the Zab suit wrote: “It is not irrational for the legislature to determine that a criminal who set fire to the home of a 95-year-old man and killed him should not be permitted to collect monetary damages from the state for touching a hot pipe.”
UC Davis law professor Gabriel Chin wrote in the 2012 issue of the University Pennsylvania Law Review, “The court cannot fail to note that the concept of civil death has been condemned by virtually every court and commentator to study it over the last 30 years.” A Harvard Law Review in 1937 argued it was problematic to treat someone as dead when they would one day be eligible for parole, as many lifers are, and leave prison.
Deyoe, in her lawsuit, alleges the statue violates the 1st, 5th, 7th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
“The Civil Death Act in treating plaintiffs as if they were dead and denying them basic civil, statutory, and common law rights and access to the courts, imposes an excessive and outmoded punishment contrary to evolving standards of decency,” Deyoe said.